Back-to-School 101: Crash course in concussions - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Back-to-School 101: Crash course in concussions

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They're back in class and back on the gridiron at Colchester High School. They're gearing up for their first game Friday night. And for one player in particular, his return to the playing field is a bit of a milestone after a devastating hit in game one last year.

"I was out for the season. I was out of school for five weeks," Quinn O'Reilly said.

O'Reilly was knocked backward and hit his head-- hard. Headaches and dizziness ensued. He had a concussion.

"You don't really know when it's going to come on," O'Reilly said. "You just wish it could just go away. Just take medicine and make it go away, but it can't."

And that's the problem with concussions. You can't see them, feel them or touch them, and you can't just pass a random litmus test to know when your brain has healed.

But at Colchester High, they have a system that helps. It begins with a baseline screening for every single athlete at the beginning of each year. It's a computer-based neuro-cognitive screening test.

"Overall it's looking at memory, concentration and reaction time. And right now, this is a little processing test, how quickly he can match those symbols to others," said John Burke, the school's athletic trainer.

It's just one of the tools Burke uses to determine when an athlete is healthy enough to return to play once symptoms have disappeared. Vermont educators are taking the issue seriously and so, too, are lawmakers. They passed a concussion law this year.

"Of course, it's about their safety and well-being and their long-term health. But also about make sure that all of the schools have a comprehensive concussion action plan," Burke said.

Those plans are now required. Also mandatory-- training for all coaches and referees on the signs and symptoms of concussions. And by this time next year, a health care provider-- either a trainer, a doctor or a physician assistant-- must be present at all ice hockey, football, lacrosse and wrestling events.

"That's a very big deal, especially in Vermont. It's a very rural state. We have a lot of high schools that are very much out of the Burlington area and it's a long way to travel and it's a big commitment and cost to the school system to hire potentially certified athletic trainers to cover their contact sports," said Dr. Jim Slauterbeck of Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

Slauterbeck and his colleagues advised Vermont lawmakers on the bill. Slauterbeck says doctors are now realizing that even little hits can have big, long-term consequences for kids, with memory, concentration and personality problems. And when an athlete gets hit a second time before the brain has fully healed, the results can be catastrophic.

"The second hit syndrome that many of us believe is a period of time when the brain is in a very vulnerable state and when a subsequent hit to the brain can actually cause the brain to swell, shut down and death can occur," Slauterbeck said.

That's information gleaned from years of research into head injuries. And it's the reason Vermont lawmakers, educators and those who work on the sidelines with student athletes mean business when it comes to concussions.

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